"I write a piece and while writing I live the piece. It is entirely mine. It’s like a love affair – not a marriage. Then, when I read the piece, it seems entirely new to me. There is some kind of energy in it. It’s like a person I want to bring to bed. Sometimes, I read things I have written and I ask myself, 'Who wrote this?'
Well, I also write poetry and I have written memoir. That’s what I do every day during my writing exercise - I write some of the events that happen in my life. The other day I was in a workshop and the instructor told us to write a secret about ourselves and to write a lie about ourselves. Then he asked, “What was the most difficult?” Everybody said that the most difficult was to write the secret. I disagreed. I knew my secrets, but I wasn’t withholding any lies. And even going beyond that, a lie can be the reverse side of the secret.
I think there is this idea that fiction is easier because it’s a lie and memoir is more difficult because it’s the truth. No. Both require an emotional encounter and a battle. I can see that sometimes we face the question, “What will people think about me?” But this question would pop up in any fictional story that we write and in each of those stories there is a piece of me in each character. I cannot deny that. The question is: Is it difficult to accept myself as a character in the memoir or myself as a character in the fictional story? The answer depends on what I’m writing about and not the genre.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
The opportunity for reflection as well as the movement of the story. Once you tell a story, the story starts to acquire its own shape or to walk its own path. It’s fun for me to discover these elements.
What’s the hardest part about writing for you?
There are many that cross my mind now. One is to stick to the story. I have so many stories to tell and I need to say to myself, “First this one and later the other.” On the other hand, editing is challenging. I’m an English-as-a-second-language speaker and when I write I don’t realize what is acceptable, what is understood and what would be a good poetic language. I need to leave this language in “reposo,” which means resting in Spanish, and this process will often take me months.
Where do your ideas come from?
I come from a large family where everybody makes a lot of jokes. I think my ideas come from the ability to see the absurd and the impossible at the same time. They also come from personal situations. Sometimes, I do some meditation exercises that help me to think about things and I write and write. It’s a process of writing and putting everything in motion. The piece in the Letting Go anthology, “Album for A Poem,” is meant to be part of a large collection of essays about my writing process.
Sometimes, I walk to explore other places and get obsessed with things I see. Then I read about them, and I walk along avenues, enter museums and meditate in churches. In “Major Ascension Luna,” one of my short stories published by Breakwater Review, I got obsessed with rue or the plant of grace. I read about it and I even bought some. I also wrote an essay about how the story came to light. The story came as I was walking in the Bronx and I entered one its Botanicas.
How much time each week do you devote to writing?
It all depends. I try to write at least 15 minutes every day. I find that timing is important for me. I set the clock and I concentrate during that time only on writing.
What are you working on?
I have several projects at the moment. I’m editing several short stories. I have some poems here and there. I also have a novel that I need to return to. The other day during my daily practice came an idea for an essay; but more than an idea it was an experience of pain when I thought about a moment in Colombian history. I started writing about that but I cannot write it now; I literarily don’t have the time.
What has been the most surprising about learning your craft?
That I forget. I write a piece and while writing I live the piece. It is entirely mine. It’s like a love affair – not a marriage. Then, when I read the piece, it seems entirely new to me. There is some kind of energy in it. It’s like a person I want to bring to bed. Sometimes, I read things I have written and I ask myself, “Who wrote this?”
Do you think workshops have helped you become a better writer?
Yes, definitely. When I came from Colombia, I was skeptical of workshops. I thought that a creative writing class was a literature class where you learn the forms and the formulas like mathematical equations. The first workshop was with Clark Blaise who told me to submit an essay for the next week. It was like going for the first day of classes in medical school and being in an operating room with a scalpel in hand. I wrote something and Clark didn’t allow me to workshop it. After class, he approached me and said, “This class is an exploration of yourself. The essay you gave us is too philosophical. Just try again.”
Of course, a workshop is always an exploration of yourself. You walk through paths that you have never walked or never thought you were going to walk. I never thought to write a sci-fi story but reading my classmates’ work helped me to explore this avenue.
In a workshop, I have a captive audience. Of course people may like or dislike your piece but you hope the story may have a certain impact, or certain direction. If not, I have to ask myself, “Why?” or to see whether the new directions are valid paths to continue exploring.
On the other hand, classes like Martha Hughes's and workshops like John Reed's or Don Scotty's, as well as the Wordsmith workshop, Under the Accent of My Skin, and the workshops offered by the Bronx Writing Center, among many others, have helped me to develop my aesthetic vision.
Tell us any secret rituals you have for getting started each day.
I write my dreams every day. I have been writing my dreams since 2009 on a regular basis. They aren’t meant to be read or published. They are only part of my daily routine. I sit at my kitchen table, drink my coffee and start typing.
Any writers you like to read to inspire you to write?
I cannot think of any particular writer. The truth is that when I read a writer who inspires me, I feel that he is talking to me, only to me. It is like I getting a letter with special note, For Jhon only. Murakami is whispering to me. Garcia Marquez came to tell me that little secret. Chekhov always tells me to be careful with the pistol if you put it there in the scene.
Who do you trust to read your work while in progress?
I usually don’t allow anybody to read anything that I consider unfinished. This is not a strict rule and sometimes it can be rather restrictive. I feel more comfortable with a piece that has a sense of wholeness. Let me give you an example: Someone draws a tiny black line in the upper side of a piece of paper. Then he asks you, “What do you think?” Then you may ask, “What is this?” The artist answers, “It is a hair.” Well, you may start thinking that it may be human hair, or animal hair, or the hair from a dead body, of just hair laying on the floor or floating in the air. The only thing I can do with that is to speculate on something that is completely blank, a white page.
What I have found useful is to talk about my writings and in the process of talking and conversing I found ways to continue. Then once I have a draft from beginning to end, sometimes, I found the critique of someone who tells me, “There is something missing here,” or “This is not complete.” In those cases, I have drawn something that allows me to see the intent but it is something blank on the page. I have the fortune to count on good friends who read my stories and are able to give me their opinion. It’s a matter of sharing similar aesthetic vision. Not all my friends are good for that and not all writers are good for that either. It’s a mutual understanding.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Write every day and handwrite. You may find it’s probably more efficient to type but emotionally it’s better to handwrite. It is like a process of reaffirmation to draw the contour of each letter. Well, eventually you need to type it but to start something it’s good to write by hand. Both are things I try to do myself.